The Value Of Music, Pt. 4 – Music Is Worthless

Part four of Hit Singularity’s look at the value of music is authored by myself.  It is my attempt to answer the same question I asked each of my previous guest posters.  Before I give my take, I’d just like to take a moment to again thank Matt Morrell, Bud Caddell, and Christopher Lars Carlson for their time and insightful views.

The question at hand is this:

”What is music worth today?  Is it worth the $17.99/album that a CD retails for?  Is it worth the $9.99/album that you can buy an album for on itunes?  Is music free (or devoid of worth), now that it can so easily by disseminated online?  Does it have some other value or gain value from some other place?”

Music is now worthless and has no longer has any inherent value.  This is a controversial statement and I’m sure many will disagree with it on the basis of both personal conviction and economics.  I believe I can address the economic objections and I hope I can also sway some to reevaluate their belief that the music they create, sell, or buy has “value”.

The reason for the worthlessness of music (and I say this in a purely economic sense and I am not referring to the personal value music holds for many) is its infinite supply.  In a manner of minutes (seconds?) I can find and download almost any album or song online for free.  Putting aside the legal objections to this action (and since 95% of music downloaded is done so illegally, this objection is largely irrelevant), this essentially infinite supply of music renders it valueless. 

This has several implications.  It does NOT mean that it is impossible to make money through the sale of music.  However, the days of selling albums or songs at 128kbps or 192kbps are rapidly drawing to a close more and more people awake to the notion that the supply of music at these bitrates is infinite and that paying money for them is a silly proposition.  The economics of scarcity and abundance are worth examining.  People have stopped paying for music for the same reason people don’t pay for air.  It’s everywhere and free so why would you?

Except people do pay money for air, in certain circumstances.  If you scuba dive, you will gladly pay good money for air.  Of course, the value in this situation does not come from the air itself but from the packaging and delivery of the air.  In short, air = worthless.  Air in a tank when you need it = valuable. 

Likewise with music, the basic digitized music is worthless but there are ways to add value to it.  One such way is to offer higher quality files, such as 320kbps or lossless.  Another is to add value through packaging.  This is why Nine Inch Nails was able to sell 2,500 of their Ultra-Deluxe Ghosts boxset.  The music itself was free (you could download it from the NIN website) but the packaging added the value.  Because the Ghosts Ultra-Deluxe boxset was autographed by Trent Reznor himself, it is an example of a third way to add value to music: by adding a connection to the artist.  This is the “souvenir method”.  People are willing to pay money, or more money than they normally would, if there is a component of connection to the artist.  Autographs can provide this connection as can individualized artwork.  Selling music at a concert is less about selling the actual music and more about selling a physical memory of the event, thus providing the connection to the artist.

There are more ways to add value to music than those listed.  Even in an age of, what I believe to be, valueless music, there are many ways to add value to music.


I’d love to hear your critique of this piece, especially my grasp of economics.  If you like it, help to spread the word by Digging this piece.  


6 responses to “The Value Of Music, Pt. 4 – Music Is Worthless

  1. The argument that all is music is worthless is seriously flawed.

    First, you are assuming that all recorded music has equal value. Would really you argue that the number one selling record on the Billboard charts has the same value as the record my cousin’s metal band just released?

    This argument also fails to recognize that anytime a single MP3 or album is purchased through Amazon the value assigned that music is the price that is paid.

    Revenue generated = value.

    Recorded music generated Billions of dollars in sales last year.

    Recorded music will no longer have value only when it fails to generate any revenue.

  2. Comment-trolling aside, what you’re saying is that the worth of the music CONTAINER is zero. Saying that is the same as music having no worth is like saying the works of Shakespeare aren’t worth anything because people can get paper for free from their friends.

  3. Jermey – When you buy the work of Shakespeare, what you are paying for is not the writing. You’re buying the convenience/experience of reading the book in print. The actual writing is free; I can get it from google.

    David – I believe people only pay money for music because they are being fooled, in essence. Because a bottle of water cost $10 at Woodstock 94 does not mean bottled water is worth $10 or has a value of $10, even if people payed that much. People were essentially being fooled to pay that. I think the reason why music sales have plummeted is because more and more people are realizing that the music itself is not worth anything. This also explains why vinyl sales are rising (the vinyl packaging adds value).

    I don’t think popularity matters when it comes to price because the supply of both the #1 hit and your cousin’s metal band is infinite.

    But this is all just my opinion. You both make really valid arguments. I think this question of the value of music is at that crux of music industries problems so I’m glad to have an exchange of ideas on it.

  4. When an artist I have a strong interest in releases a new album I usually buy it. I buy it because their music has intrinsic value to me and to support the artist. Not because I was fooled into it or unaware that’s it’s mostly likely available on Bit Torrent.

    When I (or any other consumer) willingly choose to pay for recorded music, by definition, it has value.

    Clearly the recorded music industry is largely misguided, highly inefficient and in serious decline. However, that is a different discussion.

    It is simply inaccurate to make the economic argument that music has no value (due to an infinite supply or any other reason) when the recorded music industry still generates Billions in annual sales.

  5. Your point is valid only in that Shakespeare’s works are out of copyright. If i’d said ‘the latest pulitzer prize-winning novel’ … Point remains, music wrapper = valueless, music itself = high value, though not necessarily financial to the end-user.

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